Obama’s buzz kill: If House passes health bill, he can’t yet celebrate

Jon Ward Contributor
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President Obama may be days away from passing the health-care bill on which he has gambled his presidency, a sweeping reform that would dramatically change the country.

It would be a stunning reversal if it were to happen, and an astonishing political victory for the president.

There’s only one problem: He wouldn’t be able to celebrate.

Even if the House passes the Senate bill and the president signs it, House Democrats want the Senate bill altered through a reconciliation fix. That requires at least another week of difficult work by the Senate.

So while it is likely that Obama will sign the House-passed bill before he’s scheduled to leave for a week-long trip to southeast Asia, it is virtually assured there would be no signing ceremony for the law that could end up defining the Obama presidency.

The bet, in such a scenario, would be that the Senate was able — and willing — to finish the work on a reconciliation bill that in the end they are obligated to do only by their word. A real celebration would be reserved for that moment.

House Democrats said that too much of a public celebration by the president after a House passage would likely send the wrong signals to the public and thus to the Senate, with the message, “Health care is passed. On to other subjects.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, said that even a statement by the president in the Rose Garden would be “premature.”

“If they ask me, I would say let’s wait until the [reconciliation] bill is signed,” Conyers said in an interview.

“We have to be reasonable about this because there are a number of us in the progressive camp who want some improvements to the measure,” Conyers said. “So we’re not going to be hilarious about this.”

The temptation for the president would be to seize upon the victory, especially given how long he has worked on this and how much he put on the line to get it.

A White House spokesman said Tuesday that nothing had been decided about whether to hold a signing ceremony or do a Rose Garden statement, or some other option.

Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat and one of the more outspoken members of the liberal caucus, said the White House “probably [isn’t] going to do a victory dance around that.”

“You’ll barely notice it. The last thing you want to do is gum up the works by doing something dramatic,” he said.

The deep distrust in the House of the Senate is, in fact, the main reason that Democratic leadership has explored the use of the “Slaughter solution,” which has been cast as a way to pass health care without a vote but is really mostly a way to reassure liberal Democrats that they can vote for a bill they don’t like.

“Members are being asked to pass a bill on a promise that the bill will never become law. That’s obviously a hard promise to sell,” said Rep. Artur Davis, the Alabama Democrat running for governor in his home state, who has vowed to vote against the bill.

There are a few main changes that liberal House Democrats want made to the Senate bill. They want the Medicare prescription drug “donut hole” fixed over 10 years, they want higher subsidies to buy health insurance than the Senate bill provides, they want a national board to check premium increases and the power in the hands of the federal government to stop insurance companies from imposing rate hikes deemed unfair, and they want to extent the payroll tax to investment income.

Those are the biggest reasons that “the hardcore advocates of reform understand that there are a lot of problems with the Senate bill that need to be addressed,” according to Igor Volsky, a health-care researcher at ThinkProgress, a blog run by the liberal Center for American Progress.

That’s why Rep. Xavier Becerra, the California Democrat and vice-chair of the House Democratic Caucus, demurred when asked if he would be excited if the House passes a health care bill this weekend.

“I’m going to be very excited when we do health-care reform,” Becerra said, indicating that his celebration will be reserved for the passage of reconciliation through the House.

The White House has tried to give reassurances that the president will lean on the Senate to keep its end of the deal on reconciliation.

“The president has and is spending time talking with senators, understanding that, again, this is a two-step process, that they have a very important role to play,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday.

Senators on Tuesday told The Daily Caller that they would never leave the House out in the lurch.

“Oh no, no, no. We won’t do that,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat. “We’ll pass reconciliation. We’re working together to find agreements.”

A number of House Democrats were unsure when asked whether the inevitable celebration following any passage of a bill this weekend might hurt their chances of getting the bill fixed.

“That’s a good question. I don’t know how quickly the Senate is going to act,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings, Florida Democrat.